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The Karate Kid
Genre Sport
Year: 2010

If Rocky was the ultimate underdog sports movie of the '70s, The Karate Kid was the equivalent in the '80s. Both films received nominations for Oscars and both were directed by John G. Avildsen, who obviously took a shine to directing these glory stories - subsequently directing several sequels for each of the popular franchises. Where would we be without Survivor's - Eye of the Tiger theme tune, Rocky's "Adrian!", Miyagi's "Wax-on, wax-off." or the famous LaRusso crane kick? These are threads of pop culture and have helped define the formula for classic underdog movies. The lingering after effects of these master-apprentice movies still echo today... delivering a healthy dose of '80s nostalgia and paying homage to the impact of these feel-good films.

That's probably why it was time for another Rocky with Stallone reprising his classic role in Rocky Balboa, The A-Team getting a film adaptation and The Karate Kid getting dusted off for a modern restoration. Re-imagining The Karate Kid was no easy feat... who would play Mr. Miyagi, the iconic figure Pat Morita made so famous and indelible? How would they freshen things up for a 25-year-old series? How would they find another Ralph Macchio? Who would have the goods to direct? The short answers: get Jackie Chan, set the story in China, teach Jaden Smith to kick ass and hope like hell that Dutch comedy/action director, Harald Zwart, knows how to use a copier.

Jackie Chan was a good choice for Mr. Miyagi. He has the likable character and even the talent to pull it off. You may think Chan is all about the fly-kicks and funny choreography, but he can act too... as witnessed in The Karate Kid. Apart from one action sequence, Chan takes the role of master... training his student and making a strong, honorable performance to fill the shoes of Morita. He has time to focus on drama, instead of playing it up with action stunts and comedy. It's great to see that he'll still be around after his body stops doing the near-impossible.

Setting The Karate Kid, formerly known as The Kung Fu Kid, in China was an excellent update for the story. In fact, it was probably the only way they could go - given how similar the narratives are in terms of plot development and sequence. The culture shock and fish-out-of-water comedy added another dimension to the film and made "the new kid at school" role even more alienating for our main protagonist, played by Jaden Smith (The Pursuit of Happyness). This allowed the true essence of the martial arts to flower in its natural surroundings and lent more credibility to the sport and choreography.

Jaden Smith replaces the character of Daniel LaRusso with Dre Parker, an Afro-American kid. He's a couple of years younger, black and living in China with his mom. It's a far more drastic relocation than simply moving to another city, but marks a sign of the times with outsourcing and globalisation. Smith plays the title character and most of the film's enjoyability hinges on whether you like the kid or not. Some may think he's had an easy road with his parents being Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith, but one thing's for sure... he's been born with an abundance of charisma just like his father. It's a fantastic follow-up compared with his performance in The Day the Earth Stood Still, backed by a quiet exuberance and growing maturity.

Harald Zwart was just as interesting a choice for director as casting Jackie Chan and Jaden Smith. The Dutch film-maker is renowned for comedy, delivering a mixed bag of films including: One Night at McCool's, The Pink Panther 2 and Agent Cody Banks. Perhaps his experience working alongside child star, Frankie Muniz held him in good stead. Either way, the Dutch director went a long way to redeeming his flagging film career with an honest and well-balanced remake, filmed on foreign soil.

All in all, this is a solid, well-balanced and heartwarming family sports actioner. It may be about kung fu instead of karate and have a variety of differences with the original, but this works in its favour. The Karate Kid takes about half an hour to warm-up and then really turns on the charm... winning hearts with a determined lead performance from young Jaden Smith, an honourable depiction of Mr. Miyagi with a surprising take from Jackie Chan, refreshing the story with a new setting and delivering a sound remake, which is respectful of its origins and a great tribute to the underdog story.

The bottom line: Surprising.


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